Asian Penguins middle school Linux club inspires community

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Penguins gathered together in the Artic

The Community School of Excellence Asian Penguins start every club meeting with a call and response.

The meeting leader, always a kid, asks the question, "What are we trying to do?" and the kids respond, "Change the world!" The leader then asks, "How do you change the world?" and the kids then respond, "Be crazy enough to think you can!"

What are the Asian Penguins? That's a simple question that has a complicated answer. Are they a student club? Yes. Are they a tech support group that takes care of some of our school's computers? Partly, yes. Are they also a movement for change that challenges our students to improve people's lives through the power of open source technology? Most definitely, yes. Simply put, the Asian Penguins are a Linux users group.

How did it start?

Back in the 2011-2012 school year, I was a new teacher at Community School of Excellence (CSE), a Hmong charter school at the north end of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Our school's demographic is overwhelmingly southeast Asian, with most students being Hmong (from Laos) and a minority being Karenni (from Myanmar). The school had just started a 1:1 laptop program, and shortly into the school year we discovered what so many schools before us had already: middle schoolers break laptops. Lots of them.

To supplement the shortage of laptops, I obtained a grant of four desktop computers from a great nonprofit in Minneapolis called Free Geek Twin Cities. Among other things, they try to close the digital divide by recycling computers and using Linux as the operating system. This was a treat for me, as I was already a Linux user and thought it would be fun to have a few of these computers in my room.

With four Linux desktops in my classroom, it wasn't long before kids really started getting into using them. They liked the fact that Linux was different, it was eye-catching, it was fast, and it allowed them to do school work even though they had broken their school laptops.

Soon after that, a group of kids started to stay in my room after school just to use the computers while they waited for the after school program to start. I thought it would be fun to teach them about how the computers worked, so we started doing hardware and software lessons, eventually teaching them how to install the operating system itself. I thought such a group needed a name. The kids were Asian, the mascot of Linux was a penguin, so I suggested Asian Penguins. They all loved it, and so the name stuck.

Asian Penguins group photo

Permission to run an experiment

The following year, we got permission to run an experiment in which we converted some school laptops to Linux to see how well it would work for our students. The kids who took part had to do the same schoolwork their peers were doing and report back on how it went. We surveyed those students at the end of the year to see what their experience was.

In comparing the use of Linux to Windows 7 on the same hardware, the kids overwhelmingly preferred Linux for speed, look and feel, and general stability. Although our school still mostly uses Windows, based upon the results of the experiment we were about to convince the school to allow us to continue using Linux on at least some school computers.

But why use Linux at all? For a couple of reasons. First, very few schools in the United States are using Linux. If you want to stand out, don't do what everyone else is doing. Having Linux at school gives our students a unique experience they are not likely to get anywhere else—we've checked. Community School of Excellence is the only Hmong school in the world with a Linux users group, and our deployment of Linux for student use appears to be bigger than any other school in Minnesota.

Another reason we use Linux is that while schools are not embracing Linux, it seems everyone else is! Linux runs the Internet, powers cloud-based computing, most smart phones are Linux based, and it keeps popping up in more places all the time. According to the 2013 Dice Report, when Fortune 500 companies were asked, "What is your #1 I.T. hiring need in the next 6 months?" 93 percent said, "People who know Linux." Of those, 90% said they were having trouble finding qualified help.

Where are schools falling in all of this? Sadly, they are largely absent. Maybe what we're doing is a small thing, but our kids are being exposed to another way of computing, a way that industry is asking for right now.

Asian Penguins

Linux for good

The Asian Penguins saw what Free Geek was doing in Minneapolis by recycling computers to help people, and then they looked around at our school. Many of our school's students do not have computers at home, with the main reason being cost. For a poor immigrant family, a computer on sale at Best Buy might as well be on the moon. The kids looked at our digital divide and asked the question, "If Free Geek can do something about it, why can't we?"

We got ahold of some older machines, the kids learned how to install Linux on them, and we found families to help. The first one was a Karenni, a family of eight that had only been in America for about two months. They welcomed us into their home and the kids set up the computer. It was our first attempt and we had to make a lot of it up as we went, but when we left the family had a working computer, the kids had shown the family the basics of how to use it, and we had made some new friends.

After that first trip, the kids started calling these trips "missions," and every kid in our club wanted to go on one. More kids at school came to the Asian Penguins wanting to get in on the action. After all, other people talked about changing the world, but the Asian Penguins got to leave school for an hour or so and actually go out and do it!

All of this made our kids more confident. Shy kids turned into leaders, stepping out of their comfort zones to try new things. Special needs students found opportunities to become mission leaders in the club. Other kids seemed to walk a little taller knowing that they were helping others. To date, we have given 20 computers to families in the Twin Cities metro area.

I'm not sure what the future holds for the Asian Penguins, but I can tell you that we have some kids who want to do something different, think it's fun to change the world, and are crazy enough to think they can.

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A collection of articles from educators, students, advocates, parents, and more who are implementing open source in education and working toward a more open knowledge base for everyone.

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I am a social studies and technology teacher at Aspen Academy in Savage, MN. Our school uses Linux and open source software in several of our classrooms. These computers were provided to the classes by the Penguin Corps, our school's Linux club. The Penguin Corps is a diverse group of boys and girls who have fun after school learning how to become technology leaders.


I love what you are doing. Teaching students Linux is great in its own right but getting them to do good too is just as great. I love the fact that Linux and open source software in general can be a humanitarian platform for social good.

Visionary. Inspiring. One or more of your students will grow up to become teachers and they will expand upon all of your methods. Why? Because this is how learning and community building works. What starts as a seed grows. Thanks for your wonderful storytelling in documenting your journey.

What an outstanding program. I applaud you and the students!

As I read the article, my emotions got the better of me and I couldn't stop the tears welling up.

I am a retired teacher of English in Asia, in one of its modern metropolises. Windows (and even Apple) is so deeply entrenched in the psyche of the users here that it is a constant struggle. I volunteer at my old school's library and we have resurrected a number of old single-core PCs, notebooks and netbooks using Linux (all Xubuntu now).

We use them mainly for streaming English video that have only English subtitlles in an attempt to expose students to more English as well as its culture. Too much of the teaching of English here is on grammar rules, vocabulary memorization (of words in isolation) and rigidly guided speaking and writing. Much of the fun, even wackiness and also the finer art of the language are lost. English becomes here, for most students, a source of pain and anxiety.

Teachers here don't have their own classrooms to put in the things they want like the Linux PCs for the Asian Penguins. So, as a volunteer in the library, this becomes even more of an impossible dream.

The Asian Penguins need not worry about their future. Like Linux throughout the world, from the smallest devices to the most powerful super comptuers, they can only grow. I would like to congratulate them on their missions and wish them even greater accomplishments to come.

I am at a loss for words as to how to respond. Thank you so much. I will share your thoughts with the kids at our next meeting.

In reply to by Orionds

Words fail me. All I can is "OUTSTANDING!", and, of course, "Thank you."

IT Director for a school here. Having launched Linux as a school's OS before, I thank you for the good work you're doing, and for bringing the messages of service and community to your students through open source technology. There are not many of us out there, but we exist. And I think the arc of education technology bends toward us.

Thank you. It's things like this that remind all of us (including me) that we are not alone.

In reply to by Michael Taggart (not verified)

As an IT systems engineer, I am grateful that you did this and that it's been successful.

Just over 10 years ago, I piloted a K12LTSP computer lab in a school. While in a fairly wealthy, mostly White, part of the country, many of the kids in this school were racial minorities, predominately Black, and not so wealthy. This K12LTSP pilot was with the principal's consent. The kids loved it ("cool, Linux!!"). The school's IT administrator loved it. When MSBlaster and Nachi came calling, and the Windows PC's went down, several of the previously-scared and skeptical teachers started to like it, too, because...the K12LTSP server was, of course, immune to those attacks. It kept right on going with no fuss.

The kids discovered how useful was, and instead of being told to go purchase Microsoft Office, they were given CD's of OO.o to take home and install, which they did. Life was good.


A year and a half later, somehow word got back to the Enterprise Windows Server team that there was "some Linux server" installed in the school. Being MCSE's, they didn't like that one bit. They cried bloody-murder to the higher-ups, and they got the OK to come in and strip out the K12LTSP lab. This was over the principal's objections, but the word was, "you leave 'that Linux thing' in here, you don't get support anymore." Rock, meet hard place.

The K12LTSP system was thus ripped out, with a stern warning to NEVER do anything like THAT again.

Some months later, the CIO announced a "Technology @ Home" program to give copies of Windows and MS Office to students and staff, gratis.


Wow! That's quite the story. And I can relate to a certain extent. There were some reservations to overcome here, too.

In reply to by Sum Yung Gai (not verified)

I've done a similar project, and one issue we never resolved was dealing with internet access in people's homes. Many people wanted a computer, but wouldn't get much use out of it without internet access, and we couldn't provide that.

Did you run into this issue?

Yes, we do run into this issue. When we send a team on a mission to a family's home, we send with them information for the family about low cost internet options. Both Comcast and Century Link have discount programs for low income households. Comcast's is only 9.95 per month, while Century Link's is 9.95 per month for the first year, and 14.95 per month after that. Once we eliminate the initial cost of getting the computer, a 10 dollar monthly charge for the service is a little easier to take. Some choose to do it, and some don't, but it's their choice.

I don't know for sure about Century Link, but Comcast has reps that speak Hmong and they even have one now that speaks Karenni.

In reply to by ehmatthes (not verified)

Thanks, that's great information. I remember someone suggested looking into that, and I didn't make time to find out if our service providers have a low-income plan. I'll try to look into that soon.

My story, briefly: I taught at a school with decent tech infrastructure for four years - ~30 students, ~30 computers. I left the school for two years, then went back. When I returned, the school had the same computers, now ~8 years old. 3 of them worked.

I had read about FreeGeek as well, so I taught a class called PHSGeek (Pacific High School). Students learned about Ubuntu, installed it on all of the school's computers, and they went on to maintain our computers for the next 18 months. The program faded when our district re-invested in technology, and started a cycle of maintaining computers. We now have well-supported Windows machines, but I miss the Linux days. For its next iteration, I think I might do a project where every machine in our school dual boots, so students can choose which OS to use. I still send Linux machines home with students from time to time on an individual basis.

Thanks for your story, it's an inspiring reminder of what commitment to open software can do to make the world a better place in a very concrete way.

In reply to by Stu Keroff

Stu, you are an inspiring teacher! Your Asian Penguins should be so proud of what they have and continue to accomplish. Great story, great group of kids who are already changing the world!

Am a student in Malawi, central Africa. I am in need of a person who can help me with a laptop which can help me in my research work, at our school we have computers but there are many students than the computers so it becomes tough to access them.

I always had a good technical aptitude, but no formal technical training. That said, I got into computers early on when they first started showing up in school many, many years ago while just a wee little kid. Started getting into Linux in early 2000s. I am still a dual-booter, and do see where some of the shortcoming of Linux lie, but I also see it continue to grow in the right direction. I now have a pretty cool job that is technically related, and if it were not for the technical and trouble shooting skills obtained from all my fooling with Linux and open source, it would have never happened. Learning Linux at a lower level, and having so much quality open source software and tools freely available to play with can turn you from a "rote" technologist to a true quality critical thinker within that domain, and I also believe those critical thinking skills expand out elsewhere as well.

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